This Life – 2010

It was the glossy reproduction of the woman with the black lace gloves that first caught my eye as I flicked through a book on 19th-century French artists. Strange the imprints of memory. Sitting there, in the dim library, I reverted to the nine-year-old child who’d seen the picture while visiting friends of my parents, and craved just such a pair of black lace gloves. The lady was more beautiful than I remembered – all womanly and mysterious, attributes I wouldn’t have been able to identify as a child.

The painting was titled A Type of Beauty, by Jacques Tissot, a Frenchman who became hugely successful commercially in his adopted home of Britain for his interpretation of Victorian society. But who was this woman who appeared in so much of his work?

From Tissot’s biography, I discovered she was Kathleen Newton née Kelly, his mistress, muse, and the love of his life. Almost 130 years on from its creation, information relating to these two people was scant. However, after a visit to the British national archive at Kew, I learned that she was born in 1854 in India, the daughter of an Irishman then serving in India.

Patricia O’ReillyOnce I began delving into the life of Kathleen – or Kate, as she was known – I was hooked. When I began to dream about Kate, I knew it was time to begin writing her story. She grew up mainly in Agra where her father, Charles Frederick Ashburnham Kelly, a doctor, served as an administrator with the East India Company. I tried researching India from guide books at home in Dublin but I found that I needed to experience the pulse of the city for myself, and so my husband and I went on what turned out to be the journey of a lifetime. Yes, the poverty was all-encompassing but the people were the epitome of spirituality. Visiting the Tai Mahal, overawed by its beauty, my thoughts turned to Kate and how difficult it must have been to leave this place, as she did when her father retired to London when she was just 14. After just a couple of years in Britain, however, she was bound for India again when her father made a match for her to marry Isaac Newton, a surgeon in the Indian Civil Service. It was this disastrous match which is the starting point for my own account of her life. On the outward voyage to be married, a Captain CH Palliser became besotted. Mindful of her impending marriage, Kate rebuffed his advances and continued on to Agra. The records show that she did indeed marry Mr Newton in January 1871. But when Kate disclosed the captain’s intentions to her new husband before the marriage was consummated, he decided she was ‘sullied’ goods and returned her to London.

The still-lovelorn captain followed and, during the course of their voyage back to Britain, Kate became his mistress and fell pregnant. Daughter Muriel was born on the day her decree nisi was granted, and mother and child went to Iive with Kate’s sister in the London suburb of St John’s Wood.

You-caption-6-cmHer future lover was already into his thirties. After fighting in the Franco-Prussian War, Tissot had left Paris for London. Legend has it he first met Kate at a post box halfway between the young woman’s home and the mansion where he lived, but I took creative liberty: I had them meet and I in love in Paris. My Kate refuses to discuss her past or their future and leaves France suddenly. By the time she returns to London, she is pregnant. What is a matter of record is that she gave birth to a son, Cecil George, in Mary 1876. When finally Jacques and she met again, instead of being horrified by her past, he was fascinated at her Catholic, single mother status. And under her spell he remained. Courtesy of the owners, I had a guided tour of the London house where Kate and Jacques lived for six years. There he painted The Garden Bench, Mavourneen, A Type of Beauty, Octobre and many other great works. When she contracted consumption he was so devastated that she ended her life rather than watch him suffer. She was 28 years of age. A Type of Beauty, the Story of Kathleen Newton by Patricia O’Reilly, published by Cape Press will be launched in June at Listowel Writers’ Week